For CCP, the era of seeking strength
On July 1, even as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) marks its centenary, it has sought to use the moment to catalyse the march towards the goals of “socialist modernisation” and “national rejuvenation”. According to the Party’s, and indeed Xi Jinping’s, historical narrative, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) entered a new era after the 19th Party Congress in 2017. If earlier periods were marked by efforts to “stand up” and then “grow rich”, the new era is marked by the country “becoming strong”. Examining Xi’s speeches, Party regulations, the government’s economic policies and official media discourse, one can identify some of the key features that characterise this era of seeking strength.
Xi views China as a major power that is not only an indispensable economic partner for others but also pivotal to addressing global challenges such as the climate crisis, governance of new technologies, and long-standing international conflicts. There is, thus, a desire to be treated as an equal by other great powers. This was evident in the United States (US)-China talks in Alaska in March; in Beijing’s vigorous contestation over human rights issues; in the Party’s increased risk-tolerance in its exercise of power; and the leadership’s push to offer “Chinese wisdom” and “Chinese solutions” on developmental issues and governance norms.
However, this ambitious quest is often marked with caution in domestic discourse. There is an acknowledgement that China’s external environment is undergoing “unprecedented” changes. While strategically, the gravity of power is shifting from the West to the East, serious challenges are brewing. This is expressed in the form of opposition to “unilateralism,” “hegemony” and “power politics”. These, from Beijing’s perspective, have played out through trade wars, attempts to choke Chinese technology firms by weaponsing vulnerabilities, efforts at forming “small circles” or “cliques”, and moves to challenge the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule via a values-based discourse and instruments such as sanctions.
What’s lacking, however, is a serious reflection of how China’s policies have played a role in alienating the West along with Australia, Japan, and India. Instead, there’s been greater assertion.
The leadership’s response to these challenges has entailed much more than Wolf Warrior-style bluster. Coercion is one aspect of a larger toolkit. Complementing it are efforts to expand China’s “circle of friends”. This is evident in the work to deepen strategic ties with Russia, Pakistan and North Korea, deliver on developmental needs in Africa and Latin America, find common ground with European states such as Hungary and Serbia, and expand economic diplomacy in East Asia. In much of this, China has gained ground.
Domestically, there is also certain confidence in the Party’s ability to mobilise resources, govern effectively, and sustain performance legitimacy. To be sure, this is marked by caution too, evident in calls for cadres to remember their “original aspiration,” constantly pursue “self-revolution” and guard against “arrogance and impetuosity”.
However, the confidence is, in part, a product of the Party’s belief that it has delivered visible results such as ending extreme poverty and effectively managing the pandemic. In part, it is also because China believes it is well placed to compete today owing to the advantages in terms of political system, capital, skilled labour, technological base and market size. And in part, it is because it believes that it has correctly identified the new contradiction facing society, i.e., the need to address livelihood issues and provide people a higher quality life experience. Consequently, issues such as security, pollution, health, employment, housing, urban amenities and rural development are high on the government’s priority list. These are seen as strategic imperatives that are key to the Party’s future, as is increasing technological self-reliance.
To address these, a reorganisation of the Party is underway, along with a renegotiation of the compact between the Party, capital and the people. At an organisational level, there is greater centralisation in policymaking and emphasis on top-level design. A recent guideline on supervision on chief officials and leadership teams refers to the central leadership as the “brain and the centre” of the system. This is touted as a learning from the Party’s historical experience, with provincial chiefs echoing this line. Of course, this conclusion is deeply flawed. Most studies of China’s phenomenal growth experience show that local experimentation has been critical to economic development.
This centralisation has also been accompanied by a resurgence of ideology in public discourse. Cherishing Red history, inheriting the Red gene, and sustaining the Red bloodline have been among the dominant themes in the centenary propaganda campaign. Xi, himself, has said that the Party’s “revolutionary heritage is the source of spiritual strength”. Party documents increasingly stress the importance of political loyalty as the bottom line for cadres at all levels. The scales are clearly beginning to tilt away from expertise in favour of ideological conformity. This will potentially hurt the Party’s adaptability and nimbleness to respond to future crises.
Finally, at the elite level, Xi’s personality cult and particularly new peer supervision guidelines are likely to breed resentment. How this plays out and how matters of succession are handled in 2022 will be worth watching. In the meantime, the Party is clearly redefining the rules of engagement when it comes to public and private enterprises. Where the goal of becoming strong conflicts with the desire to grow rich, the Party is suggesting that the latter must be sacrificed. Profit-maximisation cannot be the driving force for enterprises anymore. They must serve strategic ends. As China’s technology giants are learning, in this quest, no one is too big to be allowed to fail, lest they don’t fall in line.
Manoj Kewalramani is fellow-China Studies, Takshashila Institution, and the author of Smokeless War: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance
The views expressed are personal